CHICAGO (AP) – It began with a convincing victory for the Blackhawks. Then Jimmy Howard and the Red Wings controlled the action for three straight games, pushing the NHL’s top-seeded team to the brink of elimination.
Then there was the response from Chicago, which found its offense in time to take two in a row and grab at least one more home date.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Enough twists and turns to rival the greatest roller coasters.
The last act of the seesaw series between longtime rivals is set for Wednesday, when the Blackhawks face the Red Wings in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.
It comes one night after the United Center hosts The Rolling Stones, who know all about exciting sold-out shows.
“It’s about what competition is all about,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “If you’re going to continue to play, you got to be successful in the game. You play to play again. … Anytime you go to Game 7, it’s been a heck of a series.”
Taking down the stage after Mick Jagger’s last strut of the night and preparing the ice for the showdown will be a massive undertaking, but neither side seems to be worried about the playing surface.
The Red Wings just want to put their previous two losses behind them, while the Blackhawks were a long shot to even get to this point just a few days ago.
“I mean you’ve got to feel better about yourself coming off of two wins, but at the same time we’re keeping our feet on the ground, the same way we did when we were down 3-1 in the series,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “We know that it’s just one game at a time and you can’t worry about too many things at once.”
After Chicago opened the series with a 4-1 win, Detroit turned up the pressure and Howard made 86 saves in 88 opportunities during a brilliant stretch that powered the Red Wings to a commanding edge.
The Blackhawks regained the momentum with another 4-1 victory in Game 5, and then stayed alive with a 4-3 win in Detroit on Monday night. Now the Red Wings get one day to regroup for their second Game 7 on the road this postseason.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Howard said. “They’re a really good team and they showed it in the last two games.”
Detroit carried a 2-1 lead into the third period on Monday, but Chicago grabbed control with a three-goal flurry that silenced the crowd at Joe Louis Arena.
First, Michal Handzus converted a wide-open opportunity right in front of the net, and then Bryan Bickell scored from in close. Michael Frolik used a nifty little move to convert a penalty shot at 9:43.
After managing just two goals in Games 2-4, the Blackhawks put a renewed emphasis on sending players to the net to make life more difficult on Howard. And it paid off in a big way, giving Chicago a chance to make it to the conference finals for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2010.
“Whether it’s power play or regular strength, I think we want to put pucks at the net and people at the net,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
“They really try to box you out and prevent you from getting there. You’ve got to be willing to fight through it and I think that it’s not an easy job, but you’ve got to be willing to do it.”
A couple of Chicago’s best players also showed up in time to prolong the series. Toews snapped out of a frustrating slump with a goal on Saturday night and two assists in Game 6. Marian Hossa scored the first goal of the game on Monday night.
Now some of the burden shifts to Detroit stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who have been mostly silent against Chicago. Zetterberg is without a goal in the series and Datsyuk has just two points.
“The way I look at guys like that when they haven’t scored in a bit, they’re due,” Babcock said. “They’re bound to contribute.”
The Red Wings trailed 3-2 in the first round against Anaheim, and then took the last two games to advance. Datsyuk had a goal and two assists in Game 6 of that series, and Zetterberg collected three goals and two assists in the final two games against the Ducks.
“When you’re in this situation, you look back at what you’ve done before and kind of use the experience you’ve been through,” Zetterberg said. “I think it is nothing different for tomorrow. It is nice that we’ve been through it. It is going to be a great atmosphere here tomorrow and an exciting game. Two good teams are going to play a good game.”
It will be the third Game 7 between the Original Six teams, which will be in different conferences next season under the NHL’s realignment plan. They went the distance in consecutive seasons in 1964 and 1965, with Chicago winning 4-2 each time.
There were a dozen Hall of Famers on the ice over those two games, and this group of players is looking forward to another memorable series finale.
“We’re excited about the game,” Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. “We know it is going to be the toughest game of the series and they’re going to be excited as well. We’re going to have to play our best game of the year, best game of the series.”